Monday, January 30, 2012

The Bottom Line

Colorado National Monument

Despite the title this post will not tell you which underwear to select when wearing something clingy. In fact, this post will not instruct you any which way at all.

Last week our 'Safe Space' group gathered to discuss what is at the core of Christian faith; the central beliefs that must remain if we are to describe a faith as 'Christian'. In any faith setting we can sometimes feel as though we are trying to believe too much, like the White Queen in Alice through the Looking Glass:

"Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Lewis Carroll

It is tempting to try to boil down our beliefs into something that defines us tightly, whilst defining others as the infidels - as illustrated by this slightly ridiculous story from Emo Philips. So we looked at a selection of creeds, some of which were startlingly simple, some of which were plainly written by committees of stroky-bearded men with no homes to go to. The one that resonated with the group best was from the second-century bishop, St Irenaeus (and incidentally is the motto of the school where my kids attend and husband teaches - well done them):

"The glory of God is a human being fully alive."

No,  it doesn't tell you what you must do to be saved; no, it doesn't clarify the persons of the Trinity; no, it doesn't even mention Jesus. But there is something about its simple, joyful expression that we loved. It tells us that God enjoys us; and that his enjoyment is fulfilled when we enjoy him. And we do this by being...well, us. Us, in the best possible version. Us, all the way through.

In case you're worried, yes we also agreed that Jesus was vital to a faith that is Christian; there's a clue in the title. But there are times in life when being too prescriptive about what doctrines we must believe is at best unhelpful and at worst destructive. Jesus was very good at saying and asking just the right thing at the right time to the right person; he didn't need to regurgitate every last detail at every opportunity.

We also took to this distillation of a life of faith, confirmed by Jesus:

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart...and love your neighbour as yourself." Luke 10:26-28

Simple. Clear. Direct. Challenging.

Many of us find periods in our journey of faith when we are unsure what we feel: having instructions to do can get us across such arid deserts. A quote from George macDonald illustrates this:

"Troubled soul, you are not bound to feel, but you are bound to arise. God loves you whether you feel it or not. You cannot love when you want, but you are bound to fight the hatred that is in you to the last. Try not to feel good when you are not good, but cry to Him who is good. He changes, not because you change. No, he has a special tenderness of love towards you because you are in the dark and have no light. His heart is glad when you arise and say, “I will go to my Father.” For he sees you through all the gloom through which you cannot see him. Will yourself to be his will. Say to him: “My God, I am very dull and low and hard but you are wise and high and tender, and you are my God. I am your child. Don’t leave me here, alone.” Then fold the arms of your faith, and wait in quietness until light begins to rise in your darkness. Fold the arms of your faith, but not of your action: think of something that you ought to do and go and do it. If it be but the sweeping of a room, or the preparing of a meal, or a visit to a friend. Heed not feelings: Do your work."

Our worship used a song from the duo The Civil Wars, which expresses the tension in a human relationship where there is love but also pain - and in it all, a sense of knowing that love underlines everything - the bottom line.

Oh, and here is my attempt at a creed, written for Easter Day last year - one that hopefully is more of a celebration and less of a legal, read the small print, sign on the bottom line, document.

We believe in one God, the Almighty,
The ‘yes’ at the heart of the Universe
The starter and completer
Who holds, envelopes and sustains.
The Father heart whose fierce hug
embraces the wrestling nations.

We believe in Jesus
The dancer and leaper of our hearts’ delight.
The one who entered our world in human flesh
And lived amongst us, knowing our pain and our joy.
The gatherer and sender out
Who flung his arms wide
laughing at death and making all things new.

We believe in the Spirit
The Holy One from God
Intangible and unknowable
And yet closer than each breath;
Inhabiting our thoughts and dreams
Discomforting and comforting
Calming and inspiring.

We believe in one God
The mystery, the hidden treasure
who is found by those who seek
and brings answers to those who question:
we believe that in him we find all that we are searching for
and that together he forms us into his own people
foreknown and forgiven
experiencing his now and awaiting his future.

We believe in one God
And welcome his presence in this place.

TAW Easter 2011

Friday, January 20, 2012

On Rumsfeld, unlikely beasts and blue marbles

This blog conveys the bulk of the introduction to the first session of 'Safe Space', the group I talked about in my last blog entry. I've published it here partly for the use of the group members, who may have left last night's meeting thinking 'What was THAT all about?' (although I'm unconvinced revisiting it will help much!); and also for any readers who may be interested in how we are approaching this. The meeting ended with a time of contemplation of names for God, followed by a run up the road pushing our car. We hope this last stage will not become a regular feature - as long as we remember to turn off our lights! Thanks to all who ran and pushed...

Donald Rumsfeld is, in my opinion, unfairly maligned. To clarify: you can malign the ex US secretary of state for defense as much as you like for his politics, let’s be clear on that point. But there is one statement that he made that will forever come to mind whenever his name is mentioned, and for which he was unfairly ridiculed. Personally I think it was a quiet moment of genius.

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. 

But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.” 

In the context in which the statement was given – the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – it succinctly summarized the situation. But the statement has wider relevance to the questions of life, the universe and everything. There are known knowns. There are known unknowns; and there are unknown unknowns, the dark matter of the collective knowledge of humankind without which we are always to some extent groping blindly – or, as Paul put it in his letter to the Corinthians, ‘seeing dimly in a mirror’. But in addition there are also things we think we know but don’t really – unknown knowns, if you insist, Secretary Rumsfeld. The philosophers worry about brains in buckets (how do we know that we are not a brain in a jar, stimulated by scientists to experience our world as we think we know it? Why do we think our world is ‘real’, and not a dream or a computer programme as in the film ‘The Matrix’? What evidence do we have?). That’s all too hypothetical for me. Me, I worry about giraffes.

I never knew I didn’t believe in giraffes until I saw one. Of course giraffes exist. I know this. Of course I knew they’d be big, ungainly, unlikely animals. But confronted with one at Longleat, my mind reeled in such a way to suggest that I had never really believed in them at all. Since that experience I have had similar moments with some famous landmarks – most notably the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Mount Rushmore. I knew they were there. I had seen photographs, seen film, met people who had visited them. And yet there was a moment of reality, that revealed that up until that moment of encounter I had filed them in the part of my brain labeled ‘fiction’.

There are things I know. And there are things I think I know.

Sometimes it takes a personal encounter to reveal our lack of understanding. Sometimes it takes a change of perspective, something referred to as a ‘paradigm shift’ – an over-used expression that has been applied to many areas of life as well as the large-scale changes in scientific understanding to which the phrase was originally applied. These days the concept of a paradigm shift has been reduced to whether one can see the duck or the rabbit, the young or the old woman in pictures that are familiar to most of us. We forget that it originally described something much bigger and more unsettling, that came at the end of a period of dissatisfaction with a standard explanation into which new information would not fit; after wrestling, arguments and tearing out of hair. We forget that seeing things differently split the scientific community, at least temporarily, and that it was a brave person indeed who confessed to seeing a rabbit when everyone else was looking at a duck. Mendelian genetics, biogenesis, plate tectonics, quantum mechanics – all these now central tenets of scientific thought were once unknown unknowns, then known unknowns. And before that they were the opposite to what we thought we knew – the so-called known knowns of their day, when humanity believed that a body-building father could pass on strength to his children; living matter spontaneously came into being; and that the continents of the earth and the sub-atomic particles were equally and predictably fixed. Such massive shifts in understanding may have their ‘Eureka’ moments, but they tend to come at the end of long painstaking hours of thinking, testing and re-testing. The new idea may be simple or complex; something a child could have figured out, or one that takes a genius in their field. However they came about, these ideas often caused some initial pain and disturbance, along with the dizzying sense that everything we thought we knew was wrong. The shift from classical to quantum mechanics is still doing this today, with its fresh revelations from the Cern Large Hadron Collider and its preposterous notions of string theory and time travel.

So, to recap: Donald Rumsfeld was right. We don’t know a lot, and there’s stuff we don’t even know we don’t know. Indeed, as demonstrated by what I’m choosing to call the Giraffe Experiment, we may not even believe what we assume are the known knowns. Throughout the history of human understanding there have been moments when everything right turned out to be wrong. Such moments can be painful; that doesn’t make them inappropriate or even unnecessary. And sometimes they can be rather wonderful.

One of the best examples of an image that in itself caused a paradigm shift, rather than being an illustration of one, is a photograph taken on Christmas Eve 1968. You will know it well: you’ve seen it on posters, on TV, on greetings cards. It’s so familiar that its power has been reduced to a duck/rabbit moment. It’s called ‘Earthrise’.

 This photograph was taken by Bill Anders, an astronaut in Apollo 8. It was quick thinking on his part – this was not part of the mission. The spacecraft took three days to reach the moon, then orbited it 20 times. On Christmas Eve they made a broadcast from this orbit, during which they read the first ten verses of Genesis. Both words and image offered a God’s eye view of our planet for the first time.

Together with a later image, taken by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972 and named ‘Blue Marble’, ‘Earthrise’ altered our perspective on our world profoundly. Many contemporary accounts speak of the impact in terms of the fragility of our home; its beauty; and its one-ness – the nations were not separated by the hostilities of the day, but were all subject to the same natural laws and environmental dangers. Indeed, it is these two images more than any others that have been credited with kick-starting the modern environmental movement. Interestingly, the astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle had written in 1948: ‘Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.’ Certainly this seemed to be the case.

We knew that the earth would be seen from the moon. We knew that it would be beautiful, yet look insignificant in the vastness of space. We thought we knew; but we didn’t. Not really. Neil Armstrong put it like this: ‘It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.'

Knowing is not a constant state. Things change; new information comes, and our openness to that will vary from person to person and from time to time. There may be ‘Eureka’ moments; but mostly knowing and understanding is a slog, a wrestling match that is no less rewarding for the struggle. Embarking on a life of faith requires us to be available for moments when everything shifts, and we are left dizzy and disorientated. Think of Saul the persecutor of the church, walking to Damascus to find new Christians and make their lives hell. He wasn’t by nature a sadist; he wasn’t doing it for pleasure, but out of a sense of righteousness. He was a godly man who thought he was doing right by his Maker. When he met God in the form of Jesus on that road, he didn’t argue that God had it wrong; but he must have been feeling pretty dizzy afterwards. Some duck/rabbit moment.

When I was twenty-four and newly moved to Bristol, I had a faith meltdown, which was so deep-rooted that I was not able to go further, deeper; I had to unlearn before I could learn, to disassemble before reassembling. I would go to church, and feel alienated; come home, and cry. Or I would stay at home, and be no happier, missing the structure and rhythm of my life and feeling like I was missing God, too. I remember many hours and days of a sense of falling, of standing too close to a precipice and not knowing if I was afraid of it or drawn towards it. I knew that to admit a loss of faith would call every aspect of my life into question – but ‘Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much’ (John 12:24). My faith, such as it was, had to die. It was too small, too constrained. It was the unconsciously assumed dregs of other people’s faith. It didn’t fit me; it wasn’t really mine. Oh, it had served me well, at times; I had known moments of wonder. But my connection to the God of that version of my faith was slowly being squeezed into oblivion. If I wanted to know God, I had to let go, and jump.

The thing about jumping is that landing is not always guaranteed. Landing is, in fact, entirely optional – at least when it comes to God. He doesn’t necessarily ‘do’ gravity. So now I have a few known knowns; but even they are subject to change on an almost daily basis. The best I can honestly say is that I work to this principle; IF there is a God, IF he is not an impersonal force – what would he be like? I absolutely and unequivocally believe that God is a God of love – something that, before the long jump, was a parroted statement.

I believe in a God of love. I am just not always sure he’s there. Which, rather wonderfully, is so much better than before when I always believed God was there, but was not very sure at all that his intention was always to love. 

So, here we are on a January day in 2012. Christmas cleared away, Easter in the distance. Caught between winter and spring, between doubt and faith. On the outside, looking in. Ready to think about the known unknowns, and the unknown knowns. And maybe even to catch a glimpse of some true unknown unknowns, things that are, up until now, nowhere in my head at all.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

If I ever lose my faith...

One of my current 'projects' is that of devising and leading a small group for friends who are finding holding onto faith a tough thing to do. The idea began as a kind of 'agnostics anonymous', for people who had once been sure about their Christian beliefs but now felt less certain. Such a change of spiritual state can be painful, and leave one disorientated and alone; unable to articulate the cacophony of thoughts and feelings, so alien are they both to oneself and those with whom one has walked the Christian path. There is no room in many churches to speak of what we don't believe, or don't feel, when it is at odds with the primary ethos. So we wanted to create a safe place where such folk could talk openly and honestly, whilst providing a way back that was simple but profound.

The idea grew, as I discussed it with others. I had advertised it, rather unwisely, as something for 'those struggling with their faith' - a dreadful phrase, which is shorthand Christianese for 'backslidden, heathen, and lost'. No-one wants to put their hand up. Everyone hopes to avoid being at that party. That's just one step away from the (back) door. We're left feeling rather like the little characters in the picture above, from round the door of Conques cathedral in the Auvergne, France - peering into the church, not quite sure if we belong.  So lately my explanations of it have broadened out. It's a group that wants to explore, positively and creatively, some of the questions that can stifle instead of inspire our faith. It is seeking to provide an opportunity for this exploration in a safe and non-judgmental environment. It is the place where you can put up your hand and say 'I don't get it'; 'Surely that just doesn't hang together'; 'I'd love to believe / used to believe, but it's just not working for me'; or 'I believe; but this church malarkey isn't making that easy...'

Last night I met with the other members of the small planning group. Thanks in part to a bottle of red, our ideas for the weeks ahead incorporated teabags, Donald Rumsfeld, red codpieces and who could do the best Tina Turner impression. It's going to be fun.

I'll try to keep you posted as to what we really cover...

Oh, and if any friends in the Bristol area are interested in joining, do get in touch soon.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Well, that's that then...

I spent this morning getting rid of Christmas.

To clarify: this was not some 'Bah-humbug' moment. Contrary to what my colleagues believe, I actually like Christmas; just in its proper place, which is for a limited time span of around 2 weeks only, and particularly without exposure to a never-ending syrupy slick of cheesy songs.

No, this was a reversal of the Christmasification of our home.

For the first time in memory my family had de-treed whilst I was at work earlier this week. It was a joy not to be the one to pick off all the trimmings, drag the crisp-leaved potential firewood outside and hoover up 90% of the needles, carefully leaving 10% to be found randomly throughout the year. My part this year was to remove the remainder. But first I had to notice it.

Thus I played an elaborate game of hide and seek without being entirely sure what I was looking for. Every time I thought I'd finished, up popped another card / silver snowflake / fake icicle etc etc to foil me again. Throughout the process I found myself singing a weird version of No Christmas by Jay Foreman, who was an amusing support act when we went to see Dave Gorman but has now become a bit of an earworm. Don't say I didn't warn you.

There's Christmas on the shelf
There's Christmas on the stairs
There's Christmas on the floor
There's Christmas in my hair....

This Christmas time was a strangely muted affair for me, due to a lengthy period of unwellness. I had to give in, and let others do or accept it wasn't going to be done. To be honest I enjoyed the experience, although not the missing events or coming home early pooped thing. Christmas for me is Advent; the looking forward, looking towards, expectation. Whether you are approaching it with a spiritual dimension or not, this is often true; despite all the weeks of pointing the way, it strikes me as jarring the way that Christmas seems old hat the second the 25th December is over. When I worked as a ward nurse this was often particularly the case when I was rostered to do a late shift on Christmas day; quick, eat the dinner! Quick, uniform on! Those patients in hospital over Christmas tend to be the sickest ones, who are often oblivious to the rather sad attempts by the NHS to make a Christmas in hospital seem jolly (favourite moments? The year every patient was given an alarm clock, only to have them all go off, in their wrappings, an hour before wake-up time when on night shift; and the time some dimbo had plugged the ward Christmas tree into a double socket with the arrest trolley defib machine, with the result that a cardiac arrest resulted in a nurse running up the ward with the trolley dragging the tree behind it).

But this year Christmas lingered pleasantly, as I whiled away the hours reading in a haze of Lemsip.

I may try to approach things this way again in future, though preferably without the illness. There was a piece of research published recently that said Christmas Dinner is so complex, it takes the average woman(!) until the age of 47 to master it. So I've got time...on the other hand...what's wrong with Lemsip and chips?